Recently, a customer reached out to ask how we’re meeting our carbon-neutrality pledge. We’re proud we’ve been 100% carbon neutral since opening in November 2011, but we agree with *Valorie (name changed for privacy) – it’s time to explain how it all works.
“I’m concerned that you are misleading the public with claims of composting all your containers. There are no facilities in our area that do this. Could you please tell me where the ‘compostable waste’ really goes?”
We understand Valorie’s concern about our claims.
From our CEO Calen McNeil right down to our front-of-house staff in all our locations, the Big Wheel team believes in doing business sustainably, and that goes well beyond just being carbon neutral. We’re constantly looking for ways to help the planet and our community through a variety of initiatives.
The trouble is, we’ve told you what we do, but we need to communicate a lot of the “how” and “why” behind our carbon neutrality program. We’re changing that. We’re getting specific about solutions, not just to prove we’re doing it, but also to help other companies board the sustainability train with us.
We’re not looking to be better than other restaurants. We can play on the same team, pursuing the same goals – a better community and a healthier planet.
And we think it starts with composting.
Why We Care About Composting
It’s good to be skeptical about composting claims, but what Valorie and others may not realize is that the whole food industry benefits from composting – all of society benefits.
Compost supplies soil with nutrients vital for growing vegetation of any kind, particularly the food we all eat. Most people are unaware how precarious our planet’s soil situation is – how much soil is not arable, and also how little soil really exists on Earth. Arable soil is a dangerously finite resource.
Both of these are urgent concerns because our planet’s closing in on 8 billion mouths to feed.
Composting is about so much more than landfills.
Did you know it’s only the top 6 inches of earth that’s arable soil? Or that even adding just 5% more organic material to soil via compost increases the water-retention capabilities for all soil types? That means composting makes crops considerably more drought-hardy around the world, and that’s why compost is a hot topic in places like Australia, where desertification of arable land is a concern.
Whether in Australia or here, composting is critical to controlling the unpredictable changing-climate world around us. Rotting food produces methane – a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more detrimental to Earth’s atmosphere than CO2. Composting, however, doesn’t produce methane.
But using compost in agriculture doesn’t just prevent methane pollution, it’s like super-charging the soil so it won’t need chemical fertilizers. By improving soil composition, there’s less erosion, a more stable pH balance, and abundant nutrients. And plants are just like humans – the healthier they are, the better their chances of fending off pests, illnesses, and temperature swings.
By simply using good compost, farmers save money on fertilizer and pest control while benefiting from the drought-hardy crops needing less water.
Compost also encourages life – bacteria, fungi, worms, beetles – things that may give you heebie-jeebies, but which make vegetation thrive as it becomes pest-resistant. Organic matter like compost is crucial in suppressing diseases for healthy crops, reducing the need for pesticides, which then saves bees – the world’s most important food crop pollinator.
Did Someone Mention Food?
Let’s face it: Big Wheel sells food. Whether it’s the buns we use, the milkshakes you love, tasty burgers made from cows that graze on grass, or even the bright, acidic tomatoes that complement our patties, every delicious thing we sell depends on good, healthy soil – and a lot of it!
That’s why our mission to celebrate composting is as much about protecting our access to quality local food as it is about reducing landfill capacity.
And that’s the important message we hope the restaurant industry as a whole understands – through composting, we restaurateurs help ourselves and food producers, all while saving the planet a little too.
That’s why we’re proud that 100% of the non-food products used in packaging and serving our products are also compostable. It’s an investment we believe pays off every single day.
Okay, So Where Does Big Wheel Compost?
Another reason we’re glad Valorie held our feet to the fire on composting is because there’s an incorrect notion that no companies on the island do this vital work for Mother Earth.
But there are – both privately and publicly owned throughout the Capital Regional District and Greater Victoria.
We go a bit further afield for our composting services since we use the Fisher Road Recycling Facility (FRRF) in Cobble Hill. They have huge capacity, but they also use tested methods that create pathogen-free, farm-ready compost by the time it leaves their compound. We love that the Fisher Road folks are perfectly situated to provide fresh compost for the Cowichan Valley food growers who provide Victoria’s eateries with our world-class produce.
Recently, we visited Fisher Road’s facilities and found ourselves fascinated by the journey waste goes through as it’s gradually returned to our food chain.
The Fisher Road Composting Process
Upon arriving at the FRRF, compostable trash is visually inspected by their waste management team. Their job is to find non-compostable objects, like black trash bags, which they remove so the compost isn’t compromised.
What’s left is then passed through grinders. This produces uniformly small waste particles, making their composting process far faster than backyard composting. All that ground-up waste is then added to carbon and nitrogen sources in the composting pit – a blitzed-up variety of yard clippings. Natural breakdown begins as that mix is turned repeatedly, so oxygen and humidity are layered into those organic compounds along with the sorted, ground-up compostable waste.
Over the course of two to three weeks, this fermenting slurry slowly reaches the magical temperatures of 70-75 degrees Celsius. That’s more than hot enough to break down compostable products used by Big Wheel Burgers’ operations, including organic matter like beef.
Next up, once it hits that temperature, the composting slurry is moved outdoors, where it matures. Through this process of heating and maturation, harmful pathogens are neutralized, making the compost safe for food production.
At around four weeks into the compost journey, the mature compost is passed through a giant sieve with ¼-inch holes. What falls through is then sold in bulk to local soil producers.
Soon, it’s incorporated in fields and containers to enrich crops, and the local food cycle begins anew.
Composting Isn’t “One and Done,” Though
Here’s the part we really dig: What doesn’t pass through Fisher Road’s sieve on the first go then gets endless more chances. The leftovers are sent through an air knife – a giant industrial sorting vacuum that then extracts anything that was inorganic and didn’t break down, like plastics.
Once that super-fine extraction process occurs, it heads back into the composting pits indoors, where it joins fresh compostable waste, more yard clippings, oxygen, and humidity, then goes through that whole journey again.
And, four weeks later, whatever’s left will return through the same process all over again.
Of course, that separated waste extracted by the air knife gets disposed of responsibly, even if it’s all plastic, because the Fisher Road Facility recycling operations do that, too.
Working Toward a Sustainable Future
Going forward, we’ll tell you more about the “how” and “why” behind Big Wheel Burger and everything we do, because we’re on a mission to help make Victoria a beacon of ethical, sustainable dining while increasing Vancouver Island’s food sovereignty.
We like to think of is as “farm to plate to farm.”
For our friends in the food industry, let’s work together.
For our customers, we’re always happy to hear your concerns or kudos for our practices or policies, and we invite you to reach out.
Meanwhile, we hope we’ve inspired some of you to investigate how you can compost at home. The science is a little different for household composting, but there’s a lot of literature on how to achieve a healthy backyard compost pile, including in your local library’s catalog and through countless composting blog posts online. Virtual gardening groups are helpful too when you’ve got questions needing answering.
But, if you can’t compost at home, private subscription services can pick up compostables bi-monthly, and there are both public and private drop-off facilities you can use. Fisher Road’s open to taking compostables too. (Plus, check out their recycling program, because they’ll take anything from used batteries and that 1967 wood-paneled chest freezer to old paints and filthy oil filters.)
Thanks again, Valorie, for inspiring this post. The climate crisis requires us all to do our part, so we applaud making companies accountable for their claims. We hope we’ve met your expectations.
Fisher Road Recycling